The free-agent running back market for years has been depressed — and, for the runners themselves, depressing. How bad was it last year? Adrian Peterson, Jamaal Charles and Eddie Lacy, all of whom had a top-10 rushing season in the previous four years, received less than $6.5 million guaranteed as free agents. Combined.
The fact that all three are now out of favor with the teams that signed them one year ago also completes the picture. Peterson was traded by the New Orleans Saints after four games, Charles (who received zero guaranteed bucks) ended his first season in Denver with back-to-back healthy scratches, and Lacy was a bust in Seattle. Momma, don’t let your sons grow up to be running backs — if they want to strike it rich, that is.
Perhaps Le’Veon Bell can break the mold there. He’s one of the few in the 2018 class who could make actual big money by NFL standards. But for the rest of the crop of runners, they’ll have to settle for being lower-money — but maybe higher-return — investments.
With that in mind, here are our four backs not named Bell whom we consider to be the most interesting at the position as we barrel toward free agency on March 14:
1. Dion Lewis
What is the market for a player who is a terrific difference maker in a system such as the Patriots’ but perhaps can’t really carry the load or be a traditional lead option on an offense that has fewer go-to players? That’s the debate. Lewis also has had some injuries and has a small frame.
Teams such as the Colts, 49ers or Browns might be willing to overspend a bit on a player such as Lewis given their ample salary-cap space and need for a dynamic back in space. But as good as he's been in New England, Lewis looks eerily like one of those players who signs elsewhere and never comes close to his Patriots-era glory.
The Patriots would take a hit if the price got too big, and yet they typically have gone cheaper ($3 million per year) at the position. If they let Lewis walk, expect them to work harder to keep Rex Burkhead, who also is a free agent. They still have James White and Mike Gillislee on team-friendly deals.
Expect the Patriots to make an effort to keep him, but if the money gets in the three-year, $15 million range — forget it.
2. Carlos Hyde
Hyde is a good back but perhaps a bit of a mismatch in the 49ers’ system. He didn’t fare well in the passing game, either as a receiver or blocker, in Kyle Shanahan’s offense in Year 1. That’s why there’s a good chance I think the 49ers will let Hyde explore his options elsewhere. Could they bring him back? Yeah. But I doubt there will be a concerted effort to keep him at all costs.
Ideally, he’d land in a power-run system where his strengths can be maximized. His running ability really isn’t questioned. Hyde just isn’t the all-around back I thought he’d be coming out of Ohio State.
But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have value in the league — it just likely means that value likely won’t be reciprocated in the form of actual money. No teams want to spend at the position anyway, and Hyde’s shortcomings limit him even more.
Could a team such as the Panthers, Giants, Buccaneers or Dolphins be a better fit for Hyde? Perhaps. But if no team steps up to land him, you can’t rule out a return to San Francisco in an altered role where he can be paired with a third-down back.
3. Jerick McKinnon
It sure feels like McKinnon is poised to move on after a breakout season. A return to the Vikings can’t be ruled out, but are they going to pay him what McKinnon wants with Dalvin Cook back and decent money already paid to Latavius Murray?
“I want to be the guy,” McKinnon said in late January, which tells you all you need to know.
If you need more, he added: “I don't put in all the work in the offseason to come back and be in this role. I appreciate the role. It worked out well, but I want bigger and better things for myself.”
A team seeking a pass-catching back and change-up runner could earmark McKinnon for a decent role. He’s not a workhorse, and he’s a bit inconsistent, but McKinnon is shifty and explosive.
Former Vikings offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur used McKinnon well. Perhaps Shurmur could convince McKinnon that could continue in his new job as New York Giants head coach. The Bucs also figure to be a team in the mix given their lack of RB production in the passing game.
It’s possible Murray is cut, and if that happens — even though they are different backs entirely — we could see McKinnon’s chances of returning higher. But he still might be more likely to leave than to come back.
4. The old guys
Frank Gore and Darren Sproles can still play. Do they want to? Is there a team willing to step up for their services? Those remain a little unclear.
Gore, 34, told the Indianapolis Star in December that he’s open to the idea of another year.
“I want to finish strong to give myself an opportunity for a team to want me,” he said. “If there’s a great situation, I’m gonna play.”
Sproles is 34 now and will be 35 at the start of next season. He hasn’t said much definitively on his future plans, but a recent video of him running full speed on a treadmill surfaced on Twitter, so Sproles appears to be working hard in his rehab from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2017 season.
You wouldn’t figure the Eagles realistically would bring him back, not with Jay Ajayi, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood and Donnel Pumphrey in a crowded backfield. But that doesn’t mean Sproles couldn’t find a decent spot for a final run in 2018. He’s only 582 all-purpose yards away from surpassing Tim Brown for fifth all time, and it had to eat at Sproles not to be able to play in what would have been his first Super Bowl last season.
Gore also wants a shot at Super Bowl glory, so there might be a spot for him on a contender (Seahawks?) in a mentoring, part-time role. And he is a mere 76 rush yards away from passing Curtis Martin for fourth all time in that category. Gore should be a Hall of Famer either way. But we think he’ll opt for one more season, even if he moves on from the Colts.